Daily Archives: February 9, 2009

Pain Beam to Get Tougher, Smaller, More Powerful

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Wired | Feb 6, 2009

By David Hambling

The Pentagon’s pain beam weapon could get tougher, smaller, more powerful, and more mobile under a series of new research and development projects. And that could pave the way for the so-called “Active Denial System” to finally be sent to war.

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The Pentagon first unveiled ADS in 2001. But in spite of repeated calls to send the system to Iraq for crowd control, the weapon has been held up by a series of legal, political, and technical issues. However, recent contracts may show the way forward for ADS, which zaps the target with a painful, but mostly harmless, microwave blast. The idea is to start building 20 of the revamped systems, beginning in three years.

First off, the pain weapons are going to get tougher. The military is fit the system into an Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicle that has become the infantry transport of choice overseas. System 1 of the ADS was mounted in a Hummer, System 2 is a containerized system that takes a sizable truck to haul it. Which sounds like a recipe for turning the beam weapon into a sitting duck. No wonder the military is calling for “studies for the integration of Directed Energy Non-lethal Active Denial Key Systems onto mine resistant armored personnel (MRAP) vehicles.”

Secondly, get more sophisticated. The current system is gigantic, partly because of the requirement for supercooling — System 1 would not function in very hot weather. So a Broad Area Announcement last month calls for for “alternative design concepts” to reduce the volume and weight of each of the System’s four components: the power generation/storage/conditioning, thermal management, beam source and antenna.

We know a little more about what’s going on from the Joint Nonlethal Weapons Program’s newsletter. It mentions that compact solid state beam sources are being investigated that are much smaller than the existing monster Gyrotron. They’re also looking at a sheet beam Klystron, an advanced amplifier technology which could “increase system power by six-fold.”

Last time the military tried to shrink the ADS to fit a smaller vehicle it was not a success; they ended up with a beam which was only 400 watts (compared to about 100 kilowatts) and did not have the range and power needed. It was deleted from an experimental, nonlethal-weapons-packed vehicle program. On the other hand, the action-packed, game-show style field test of the low-power ADS looked amazing…but this time they will be aiming for better results.

All the previous Active Denial Systems have been built by Raytheon; the company even makes a commercial version, Silent Guardian. But this is a competitive contract, calling for at least two contractors and no favoritism.

Thirdly, it’s going to have a new name. The official documents have now started referring to the vehicle-mounted version of the pain ray as Mobile ADS, contracted to MADS. This is probably because other versions, such as the Portable ADS or PADS are in the pipeline. I always thought that “Active Denial” was a weak name, but calling it MADS may not be an improvement… cue a slew of bad insanity jokes. Perhaps Danger Room readers can suggest a better name, preferably based on an acronym?

[Photo: U.S. Army]

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Tens of thousands of elderly people could die of cold, council leaders warn

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Snow: cold could kill tens of thousands of elderly people, council leaders have claimed Photo: REUTERS

An extra 40,000 people could die needlessly this winter due to the cold and snow, council leaders said.

Telegraph | Feb 5, 2009

by Rebecca Smith, Medical Editor

Freezing temperatures increase illness in the elderly, cause a rise in falls and hospital admissions and worries over fuel bills may lead many to cut back on heating.

In 2007/8 there were 25,000 more deaths in the winter compared with the summer months and this year is expected to be worse.

The Local Government Association said the coldest winter in the last 20 years was in 1995/6 when 40,000 more people died than during the summer, and there are fears the death toll could be similar this year.

Councils are also looking to local people to help them identify who else might need help, and are issuing a basic three step plan as forecasters predict more snow over the coming days.

Councils are asking people to think if they have elderly relatives or neighbours living alone and to check on them, to look for homes where curtains have not been drawn or mail has built up and to go out and clear paths and doorways for older people.

Cllr David Rogers, Chairman of the Community Wellbeing Board at the LGA, said: “Everyone’s aware how bitterly cold the weather is at the moment, and for older people these freezing temperatures pose a real danger. A few simple steps can save lives, and reduce the number of deaths which happen needlessly every year.

“Councils provide a wide range of support which can help to prevent people from falling ill or feeling isolated, but local people have a crucial part to play in helping identify those who may need more help.

“Eating well and keeping warm can make all the difference when it comes to people surviving another harsh winter. No-one needs to face the winter freeze alone.”

Last month the Royal College of General Practitioners urged people to check on elderly relatives as the combination of the cold weather and flu outbreak caused concern over their health. Flu levels have now dropped back to normal.

Threats to media freedom worry Thai Internet community

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Thai activists say the blossoming of political blogs have unnerved authorities, prompting a state censorship campaign

AFP | Feb 8, 2009

BANGKOK (AFP) — Frustrated with what she saw as corporate influence and political bias in Thailand’s print media, Chiranuch Premchaiporn helped launch a news website in 2004 to try and filter out the spin.

For a while, it worked as thousands of people visited Prachatai.com every day to read stories they did not see in newspapers and to air their views on the website’s lively chat boards.

But everything changed after a 2006 coup ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra and launched more than two years of highly-charged political turmoil.

“After the coup for a month I got contact from the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) Ministry warning us about some of the comments on our web board,” said Chiranuch.

Since then, she has been summoned by police eight times to answer questions about content on her site, while 20 pages on Prachatai.com have been blacklisted and blocked by the authorities in the last five months.

Activists say the blossoming of blogs and Internet chat rooms poring over the kingdom’s tumultuous politics have unnerved the authorities, prompting a crushing campaign of censorship to suppress dissenting voices.

The government installed by the coup-makers enacted a law in 2007 policing the Internet, and the current administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appears to be implementing it with vigour.

More than 4,800 webpages have been blocked since March last year, an ICT official told AFP, notionally because they contain content deemed insulting to Thailand’s deeply-revered royal family.

The monarchy’s role in the recent political upheaval remains one of the most sensitive subjects in the kingdom, with few local newspapers willing to touch the issue.

“The Thai media is now being completely made tame. They don’t dare report lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) cases or any anti-government positions,” said Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a political science professor.

“So people express themselves through the Internet, and the government wants to try and put a stop to this.”

Abhisit came to power in a parliamentary vote on December 15, 2008 after ongoing protests by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) helped topple the Thaksin-linked ruling party less than a year after it won elections.

The PAD openly claimed the support of the monarchy, while critics of Abhisit say his Democrat Party enjoys the backing of the powerful military.

All the intrigue provided grist for the thriving chatrooms.

“It encouraged people to talk more and the Internet is the most liberal space in Thailand,” said Supinya Klangnarong of media group Thai Netizen.

Paris-based media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders says Thailand has more than 14 million Internet users, and in January put out a statement asking if Thailand was the world’s “new enemy of the Internet”.

They deplored the recent arrest of one user after authorities claimed to have matched his computer’s Internet address to one used to post online messages deemed defamatory to the monarchy.

At the same time, analysts have said that a record number of investigations are being conducted into lese majeste cases, which carry a jail term of up to 15 years.

Many of them have targeted the media.

Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was jailed for three years on January 19 for defaming King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn in a short passage in a 2005 novel.

Political analyst Giles was on January 20 officially charged with lese majeste in connection with a book he wrote about the putsch.

“They are really turning the clock back with a medieval-style witch-hunt going on, and you don’t have any transparency,” Giles told AFP.

Three issues of British news magazine The Economist have been pulled from the shelves by the Thai distributor in an act of self-censorship because they contained articles about the Thai royals and lese majeste.

When questioned in December about censorship, Abhisit said Thailand was not the only country which blocked websites carrying material deemed offensive.

“The details of which contents are blocked are different according to the traditions and the historical factors of each society,” he told AFP.

Supinya says that they have asked many times for a list of the banned web pages, but the authorities refuse to release it.

The communications ministry, meanwhile, has announced it is setting up a “war room” to police the Internet, claiming that thousands more web pages insult the monarchy and therefore threaten national security.

Activists say, however, that the government’s policy will eventually backfire as Thais will find an outlet to discuss topics crucial to their country’s future.

“You block one, ten more websites will happen,” said Chiranuch.

Spies Want to Scan Your Iris From Afar

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Wired | Feb 6, 2009

By Noah Shachtman

There’s software that’s smart enough to recognize people by their faces, or by their irises. But those algorithms are finicky. To work properly, subjects usually have to be willing to play along — looking straight into the camera, when the light is just right.

The new uber-geek arm of American spy agencies, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, is looking to change that. Researchers there want to do iris and face-scans from far away, and “under uncontrolled acquisition conditions.” So they’re launching a new project, “Biometrics Exploitation Science and Technology” (BEST) to find new ways to get this face and eye data, even when the subject is moving and the lighting is all wrong.

“The minimum objective is to exceed by a factor of three what is commercially available today, with recognition performance similar to that achieved with the cooperative or conditioned individual under controlled acquisition,” a recent announcement to industry notes.

A recent meeting in Virginia to discuss the project drew more than 130 researchers and executives. Many were from well-established defense contractors, like General Electric, Harris, Batelle, and Raytheon. Others were from less conventional firms. Take Conway, New Hampshire’s Animetrics Inc., which is trotting out a “portable face recognition” program for the iPhone, called iFace. In addition to wooing spies, the company has a commercial edition of the software. “iFace Celebrity Edition…. match[es] you to your most similar celebrity,” the company promises. “The elegant simplicity of the iPhone makes this application both easy to use and very fun… The iFace output of the top celebrities who resemble your face will be popular among social networkers.” There’s no mention of whether the celebrity-matching game was played at the spy agency’s confab.

[Photo: DoD]

Chomsky: No change coming with Obama

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“It was pretty clear that Obama would accept the Bush doctrine that the United States can bomb Pakistan freely.”

MWC | Feb 8, 2009

By Shahram Vahdany

The following is a Press TV interview with respected American author, political analyst and world-renowned linguist, Professor Noam Chomsky.

Press TV: Professor Chomsky, we better start with Pakistan. The White House not commenting on the killings of people [in cross-border drone attacks from Afghanistan into Pakistan]. Richard Holbrooke, someone whom you’ve written about in the context of Yugoslavia, is the man [President Barack] Obama has chosen to solve the situation.

Chomsky: Well, it was pretty clear that Obama would accept the Bush doctrine that the United States can bomb Pakistan freely, and there have been many case which are quite serious.

There has been for example a great deal of chaos and fighting in Bajaur province, which is a adjacent to Afghanistan and tribal leaders- others there- have traced it to the bombing of a madrassa school which killed 80 to 95 people, which I don’t think was even reported in the United states, it was reported in the Pakistani press of course.

The author of the article reporting it, a well-known nuclear physicist, Pervez Hoodbhoy pointed out at the time that this kind of massacre will of course engender terror and reactions, which will even threaten the state of Pakistan. And that has been what is happening. We are now seeing more of it.

The first message of the Pakistani government to General [David] Petraeus, the American General when he took command of the region was that they did not want any more bombings in Pakistan.

Actually, the first message to the new Obama administration by President [Hamid] Karzai of Afghanistan was the same, that he wanted no more bombings. He also said that he wants a timetable for the withdrawal of the foreign troops, US and other troops, from Afghanistan. That was of course just ignored.

Press TV: And these three foreign envoys, well the third one has not been announced yet perhaps, but some people are expressing optimism about George Mitchell’s position as Middle East envoy.

Richard Holbrooke, which have looked at. We have talked to the former Bosnian foreign minister here, who seemed to imply that he may even have had a role in the say so for the Srebrenica massacre, and of course, Dennis Ross is being talked about as an envoy for Iran.

Chomsky: well Holbrooke has a pretty awful record, not so much Yugoslavia, but earlier. For example, In the Indonesian atrocities in eastern Timor, where he was the official in charge, and evaded to stop the US support for them, and all together it’s a very spotty record.

George Mitchell is, of the various appointments that have been made, he is the most decent let’s say. He has a pretty decent record. He achieved something in Northern Ireland, but of course, in that case there was an objective.

The objective was that the British would put an end to the resort to violence in response to IRA terror and would attend to the legitimate grievances that were the source of the terror. He did manage that, Britain did pay attention to the grievances, and the terror stopped- so that was successful.

But there is no such outcome sketched in the Middle East, specially the Israel-Palestine problem. I mean, there is a solution, a straightforward solution very similar to the British one. Israel could stop its US-backed crimes in the occupied territories and then presumably the reaction to them would stop. But that’s not on the agenda.

In fact, President Obama just had a press conference, which was quite interesting in that respect. He praised the parabolic peace initiative, the Saudi initiative endorsed by the Arab League, and said it had constructive elements. It called for the normalization of relation with Israel, and he called on the Arab states to proceed with those “constructive elements,” namely the normalization of relations.

But that is a gross falsification of the Arab League initiative. The Arab League initiative called for accepting a two-state settlement on the international border, which has been a long-standing international consensus and said if that can be achieved then Arab states can normalize relations with Israel.

Well, Obama skipped the first part, the crucial part, the core of the resolution, because that imposes an obligation on the United States. The United States has stood alone for over thirty years in blocking this international consensus, by now it has totally isolated the US and Israel.

Europe and now a lot of other countries have accepted it. Hamas has accepted it for years, the Palestinian Authority of course, the Arab League now for many years [have accepted it]. The US and Israel block it, not just in words, but they are blocking it in actions constantly, (this is) happening every day in the occupied territories and also in the siege of Gaza and other atrocities.

So when he skips that it is purposeful. That entails that the US is not going to join the world in seeking to implement a diplomatic settlement, and if that is the case, Mitchell’s mission is vacuous.

Press TV: Is there a contradiction in that George Mitchell of course did speak to members of the Sinn Féin, their military wing of course of the IRA.

At the same time, well on this channel [Press TV] we have been covering the Gaza conflict, its headquarters were bombed, and now we are being told that Israeli soldiers will not give their names, and the names of people are not being released for fear of prosecution.

And yet, some were saying that Obama did say that the border should be opened. Should we see any change in policy there?

Chomsky: He did say that, but he did not mention the fact that it was in the context of a lot other demands. And Israel will also say, sure the borders should be opened but he still refuses to speak to the elected government (i.e. Hamas), quite different from Mitchell in Northern Ireland.

It means Palestinians will have to be punished for voting in a free election, the way the US did not want them to, and he endorsed the Condoleezza Rice-Tzipi Livni agreement to close the Egyptian-Gaza order, which is quite an act of imperial arrogance.

It is not their border, and in fact, Egypt strongly objected to that. But Obama continued. He says we have to make sure that no arms are smuggled through the tunnels into the Gaza Strip. But he said nothing about the vast dispatch of far more lethal arms to Israel.

In fact, right in the middle of the Gaza attack, December 31, the Pentagon announced that it was commissioning a German ship to send 3,000 tons of war material to Israel. That did not work out, because the government of Greece prevented it but it was supposed to go through Greece but it could all go through somewhere else. This is right in the middle of the attack on Gaza.

Actually there were very little reporting, very few inquiries. The Pentagon responded in an interesting way. They said, well this material won’t be used for the attack on Gaza, in fact they knew that Israel had plans to stop the attack right before the inauguration, so that Obama would not have to say anything about it.

But the Pentagon said that this material is being used for pre-positioning for US forces. In other words, this has been going for a long time, but this is extending and reinforcing the role of Israel as a US military base on the edge of the major oil producing regions of the world. If they are ever asked why they are doing it, they will say for defense or stability, but it is just a base for further aggressive action.

Press TV: Robert Gates and Admiral [Mike] Mullen have been talking about the 16-month timeline for withdrawal from Iraq is just one of the options, a slight difference from what Obama has been saying in the campaign. And, Hillary Clinton famously said she was prepared to obliterate all of Iran and kill 70 million citizens. On Iraq and Iran what do you see as changes?

Chomsky: What happened in Iraq is extremely interesting and important. The few correspondents with real experience any whom know something have understood it. Patrick Cockburn, Jonathan Steele and one or two others.

What has happened is that there was a remarkable campaign of non-violent resistance in Iraq, which compelled the United States, step-by-step, to back away from its programs and its goals. They compelled the US occupying forces to allow an election, which the US did not want and tried to evade in all sorts of ways.

Then they went on from there to force the United States to accept at least formally a status of forces agreement, which if the Obama administration lives up to it, will abandon most of the US war aims. It will eliminate the huge permanent military bases that the US has built in Iraq. It will mean the US will not control decisions over how the oil resources will be accessed and used. And in fact just every war aim is gone.

Of course there is a question of whether the US will live up to it and what you are reporting is among the serious indications that they are trying to evade living up to it. But what happened there is really significant, and a real credit to the people of Iraq, who have suffered miserably. I mean, the country has been absolutely destroyed, but they did manage to get the US to back away formally from its major war aims.

In the case of Iran, Obama’s statements have not been as inflammatory as Clinton’s, but they amount to pretty much the same thing. He said all options are open. Well, what does all options mean? Presumably that includes nuclear war, you know, that is an option.

There is no indication that he is willing to take the steps, say, that the American population wants. An overwhelming majority of the American population for years has been in favor, has agreed with the Non-Aligned Movement, that Iran should have the rights granted to the signers of the non-proliferation treaty, in fact to develop nuclear energy.

It should not have the right to develop nuclear weapons, and more interestingly about the same percentages, about 75 to 80%, call for the establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone in the region, which would include Iran, Israel, and any US forces deployment there, within all kinds of verifications and so on.

That could eliminate probably one of the major sources of the conflict. There is no indication that the Obama administration has any thought of doing anything about this.

Press TV: Just finally Professor Chomsky, the US economy, of course where you are -that is dominating the news and the lives all Americans and arguably the people around the world- and this 825 billion dollar package. How do you think the Obama people are going to handle this?

Chomsky: Nobody really knows. I mean, what is happening with the economy is not well understood. It is based on extremely opaque financial manipulations, which are quite hard to decode. I mean, the general process is understood, but whether the $800 billion, or probably larger government stimulus, will overcome this crisis, is not known.

The first $350 billion have already been spent- that is the so-called part bailout but that went into the pockets of banks. They were supposed to start lending freely, but they just decided not to do it. They would rather enrich themselves, restore their own capital, and take over other banks- mergers and acquisition and so on.

Whether the next stimulus will have an effect depends very much on how it is handled, whether it is monitored, so that it is used for constructive purposes. [It relies] also on factors that are just not known, like how deep this crisis is going to be.

It is a worldwide crisis and it is very serious. It is suddenly striking that the ways that Western countries are approaching the crisis is exactly the same as the model that they enforce on the Third World when there is a crisis.

So when Indonesia has a crisis, Argentina and everyone else, they are supposed to raise interest rates very high and privatize the economy, and cut down on public spending, measures like that. In the West, it is the exact opposite: lower interest rates to zero, move towards nationalization if necessary, pour money into the economy, have huge debts.

That is exactly the opposite of how the Third World is supposed to pay off its debts, and that this seems to pass without comment is remarkable. These measures for the West are ones that might get the economy moving again, while it has been a disaster for others.

General Wants to Scan More U.S. Irises, Fingerprints

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Biometric camera in use. [PHOTO: U.S. Air Force]

Wired | Jan 29, 2009

By Nathan Hodge

Air Force Gen. Victor Renuart, the Pentagon’s homeland security commander, thinks one of the tools the military uses to combat insurgents in Iraq — the collection of biometric data — is needed here at home.

The Associated Press has this intriguing quote from Renuart, who spoke Tuesday at a defense industry conference in northern Virginia:

“Interestingly, we are probably further forward in using biometrics outside our country in some of the combat environments than we are inside our country,” said the general. “We’ve got to find a way to fix that.”

Tuesday’s conference was devoted to discussion of implementation of HSPD-24, a homeland security directive signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. The directive is supposed to harmonize the way federal agencies and the military collect, store, analyze — and share — biometric data. As it stands, the directive instructs the Attorney General to work with the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology to create an action plan for implementing HSPD-24 by this June.

The new administration may be reviewing a number of Bush directives, but now might be a really good time to read up on the military’s use of biometric technology. Noah reported extensively on the use of biometrics to deny freedom of movement to insurgents in Anbar province; he also noted the privacy and human-rights implications. For good measure, go read this fascinating transcript of this bloggers’ roundtable from 2007 with Lt. Col. John Velliquette, then the chief of biometrics collection in Iraq.

In the conference Tuesday, Renuart seemed to be talking largely about security badges for military bases. But as anyone who’s been on the receiving end of the U.S. military’s biometric identification process knows, it’s an intrusive process. More importantly, deciding who has access to the databases — and how that info will be shared — will continue to be a major concern for the government and for privacy advocates.